This morning, Nick Kristof warned Americans that they had better get used to a China-centric international system in which they will be relegated to second–or third–place. “The world we are familiar with, dominated by America and Europe, is a historical anomaly,” he writes. “Now the world is reverting to its normal state–a powerful Asia–and we will have to adjust.” For him, the most important trend at this moment is the rise of China.
Kristof certainly stays on safe ground when he predicts the emergence of the Chinese state. Just about no analyst thinks the United States will be the dominate power when this century ends. In Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” where globalization spreads economic development evenly from continent to continent, a China five times more populous than the United States will end up five times more powerful. Sometime in the course of human history, that may happen.
Yet Chinese dominance, if it ever occurs, won’t happen soon, certainly not this century and maybe not even the next one. Why? Because national strength is not just about population size. As Kristof points out, the New York Times would today be printed in Chinese or Hindi if history moved in straight lines.
If the world truly has a “normal state”–a highly debatable proposition–it is that large and stable countries set the tone for the rest of the international community. And Beijing is in no position to challenge the United States. China, a one-party state, is beset by debilitating internal strife created by hardline governance and intolerance for minority peoples. The Communist Party is having trouble governing itself, not to mention China. As a result, it is in no position to exercise leadership beyond Chinese borders.
China will certainly win more gold medals at the ongoing Olympics, a fact that seems to hold great symbolism for Kristof. Chinese dominance of the Games, for me, speaks more to Beijing’s devotion to maintaining an East German-like sports development program and its commitment to cheating. As he notes, the mighty Chinese state has just sentenced two elderly women–one 77 and the other 79–to one-year terms of re-education through labor because they applied to stage lawful protests. If the Communist Party is so popular, then why does it need to incarcerate two old women and deploy more than 400,000 soldiers, paramilitary troops, police, and volunteers to maintain security for the Olympics?
China is unstable, as the rash of bombings, stabbings, and large-scale protests in the run up to the Olympics shows. Eventually, the country will solve its internal “contradictions,” if I may use a Communist Party term. Until China’s leading political organization settles centuries-old conflicts it inherited and all the new ones it created, the world’s normal state will be an international system with strong Western societies at its core.